Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Music and Magic of Poetry

I think we can safely say that Summer is over and that Autumn has well and truly arrived.  
At the moment, most of the leaves are still on the trees but it won’t be long before they fall and turn all the pathways into ‘carpets of gold’, a phrase that never fails to remind me of the Headmaster of a school where I taught in the late 1960s.
Queenswood, Herefordshire

I had previously taught in a pretty little Victorian school in the leafy, suburban commuter-belt of Surrey.  It was a typical Victorian village school, obviously old but very well kept; everything about it and its surroundings was comfortable and attractive. So it was quite a tricky transition when I moved to a large, rather drab ‘modern’ school, with a catchment area  mostly consisting of a huge council estate. Lots of concrete and a generally dreary and yes, drab environment. The pupils were very different too. It took me a while to adjust to the fact that it was the norm for nine-year-old girls to wear nail varnish and earrings in school and to hearing tales of mothers running off with the milkman!

But the headmaster, a Welshman, was in a way, a light in the wilderness! There is a saying that the Welsh are all ‘teachers or preachers’ and Mr F. was a bit of both.

Away from the children, he had some of that typically Welsh gloom that underlies their famous sense of humour. He was often to be found lurking in the stock cupboard, where he would complain endlessly about his chronic sinus condition – ‘a tight band around my forehead!’, seeking sympathy from anyone who popped in to pick up some supplies. One of his more annoying habits was to appear in our classrooms about ten minutes after the children had all left, with his coat and hat on, obviously all ready to leave, asking, ‘Haven’t you people got homes to go to?’, knowing full well that we, the teachers, had several long hours of work still ahead of us.

So we were not fully appreciative when he addressed the children in assembly, extolling the ‘carpets of gold’ which very few of them would ever have seen! 

 Queenswood, Herefordshire

 Another of our Headmaster's pet phrases for use in assemblies was ‘the magic and music of poetry’! And it could be extremely irritating when he insisted that all written work that was put on display must be decorated with a coloured border. In fact, no work written on sheets of paper, was considered complete without its decorative border.

Our classroom displays were to be works of art in themselves – which is one of the main reasons that we staff were stuck in our classrooms for hours after the school day had finished. We seemed to have a copious supply of coloured tissue paper which was liberally stapled to display boards. And there was always plenty of white card donated by a nearby factory that used it for their packaging, which we used to make white ‘frames’ for the artwork displays. This sometimes gave rise to friction amongst the staff as we vied for possession on the guillotine to cut the card into strips for the frames. Somehow, however hard I tried, I never managed to get mine to look square and my inability to perform such an apparently straightforward task caused me more frustration than it would have if  'presentation' hadn't been so high on our Headmaster's agenda!

At the time, I think most of us seriously questioned the value of all this ornamentation. But looking back, when I met up with one of the teachers not so long ago, we agreed that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. The children, few of whom would go on to shine academically, certainly learnt to take a pride in the appearance of their work, if nothing else. And the brightly decorated classrooms might have given them a glimpse of an environment rather different from that drabness that otherwise surrounded them.

Whether the ‘music and magic’ of poetry – or was it ‘magic and music’? -  made any impact on them, I really can’t say but what else can you expect from a Welshman?

‘To be born Welsh is to be born privileged, 
Not with a silver spoon in your mouth, 
But with music in your blood and poetry in your soul.’

Early Autumn in Castle Meadows, Abergavenny


Linda said...

How strange, I came to your blog today from Jan's looking for some art exercises. I found them and then thought I'd look round. I'm slightly intimidated by art, just tentatively trying a drawing course at the moment. Funny thing is I run a blog and a Flickr group devoted to, erm, Classroom Displays!

Judy Adamson said...

Hi Linda - nice to meet you! And I enjoyed browsing your blog - I didn't know that Sparklebox was no longer in existence. What happened?

A great many people seem to be intimidated by art and it's my firm belief that the first thing to do is to 'unlearn' whatever is holding you back, BEFORE embarking on learning, just as it was with my remedial literacy pupils. I feel a new blog post coming on...!

Polly said...

Those paintings are just beautiful! Have you made them into cards?

Loved reading your school stories! Have you thought of writing a book? I used to love the "Miss Read" books. Stories of her years teaching in English village schools.

Do the younger children still get milk in the mornings? I remember the janitor of my village school, Mr Fisher, carrying in the crate of little glass bottles of milk every morning around 10:30. The milk would have a thick band of cream on the top, and in the winter the milk would be half frozen. We would have to wait for it to thaw before we could get a straw into it.

Linda said...

Thanks, glad you enjoyed the site. Sparklebox still exists but it is blocked by most LEAs because of what the owner did. BBC news link for more details
'Unlearning' sounds like good advice, looking forward to the post.

Country Mouse Studio said...

I've left comments twice and they keep disappearing. I loved the story

Jan Scott Nelson said...

This story took me back in time. I was never a school teacher, but I was certainly a pupil and undoubtedly had no idea how much time the teachers spent working behind the scenes to make the place look lovely. Even more important in drab surroundings where aspiraions may be low. Thank you, Judy!

Judy Adamson said...

First, my apologies for not responding to all your comments sooner. Twofold reasons/excuses: dodgy internet connection and also I've been in HTML Hell for the past 3 days, trying to get to grips with an email newsletter for my Kitchen Table Cards. All done now, so here goes:

@ Polly

Thank you for your comments on my paintings - I don't think I've made these particular ones into cards yet, though I have made a lot of my pastel paintings into cards and prints. It's all so time-consuming but I'll be getting around to it!

I love those Miss Read books too and one of the schools I taught in reminded me very much of her. I haven't done any classroom teaching for a long time now because of my back problems, so I don't know about the state of the milk distribution. But I certainly remember exactly what you wrote about the crates of little milk bottles! The last school I was in had tiny cartons of milk for the children, but that was a while ago.

@Linda - thanks for the info on Sparklebox. It really shocked me as from what I read on the TES forums, he was very popular!

I've drafted a blog post about drawing but it's far too long so I'll have to see if I can break it up a bit!

@Carole - Many thanks for keeping trying! The internet can be so frustrating sometimes! Glad you liked hearing about Mr F - I've been doodling a little drawing of him, which I might post here when I find time to scan it!

@Jan - thank you for your comment. Yes, most teachers who actually care about what they're doing (afraid there are some who see it as an easy ride!) spend almost as long working outside of school hours as they do actually teaching! It really annoys me when people talk about all those long holidays that teachers get. I used to spend most of mine preparing for the next term! At one point, my husband was commuting to London and used to pick me up from school on his way home from the station!

Betsy Grant said...

I must be part Welsh because I definitely have music in my blood!